Will Russia build an analog of Chinese Great Firewall?

Russia would limit the Internet like China did, if only it had the money

by Daria Luganskaia

China is the worst country in the world in terms of the Internet freedom, the  American NGO Freedom House reports. Russia’s reputation for internet freedom is not much better – ranking 64 out 100 according to Freedom House. Is Kremlin going to build its own “Great Firewall”?

To some extent, all the governments control online content. Even Iceland, the country with the lowest ranking for the Internet regulation, earned six points, not zero from Freedom House. The UK Conservative government, for example, tends to ban websites with child pornography, not for political reasons. China and Russia, however, belong to the camp of countries imposing political censorship.

These two countries develop ties regarding the Internet. Thus, several Chinese officials, including the architect of China’s “Great Firewall”,  arrived in the country for the first United Forum on the Internet security in April 2016.

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Russian officials at the meeting with Chinese colleagues in Moscow. Credit: RBC correspondent Alyona Sukharevskaya for RuNet Explorer

The Chinese famous “Great Firewall” or the Golden Shield Project is a censorship and surveillance system limiting access to the international and local websites since 2003. Because of this system, Chinese people can’t get access lots of international websites including Reuters, BBC, Bloomberg or The New York Times among the others, as ProRepublica, an American news media, shows in its project  Inside the Firewall. The media is tracking if the homepages of international news organizations are available in China in real-time. They extract the data from a censorship monitoring service GreatFire.org.  The Chinese have to follow approved local media that follow orders of the government and therefore do not give them the full picture.

It is not the case in Russia: foreign media and services such as Facebook are not permanently banned in Russia. The Russian government, on the other hand, has not expressed intentions to ban Facebook or Twitter completely. They have a large audience in Russia. According to TNS Russia, Twitter has 11 million monthly users in Russia, and Facebook – 23 million. These people are mostly middle class, educated ones who would be outraged if their favorite communication tools disappear.

These Internet services are commonly used in many countries t bring people together, especially for anti-governmental protests. In 2011-2012, Russian opposition widely used Facebook and Twitter to bring thousands of Russians to protest against unfair elections.

Despite Russia does not ban foreign media, sometimes whole websites go down. It is technically impossible to block just one page of a website that uses HTTPS protocol. According to the Russian law, calls for extremism,  drug abuse and other things are prohibited, and the pages showcasing such content must be banned.

Wikipedia that uses HTTPS was briefly unavailable in Russia in August 2015 because of an article about charas, a drug made of cannabis. The regulator Roskomnadzor claimed there was ‘propaganda of drug abuse’ in the article. Wikipedia disagreed at first and did not make any changes. Soon after, Twitter exploded with outcries of people around Russia saying that they can’t access Wikipedia. Then Wikipedia’s community of authors voted for the content removal to keep Wikipedia available in Russia, and its administration complied with the law.

Soon after, Twitter exploded with outcries of people around Russia saying that they can’t access Wikipedia.  Then Wikipedia’s community of authors voted for the content removal to keep Wikipedia available in Russia, and its administration complied with the law.

Interestingly, Roskomnadzor did not warn Wikipedia first but published an announcement on its official page on Facebook and other social media channels. Roskomnadzor is obliged by the law to contact the hosting provider, or the owner of the website, within 24 hours.

Stanislav Kozlovskiy, executive director of the Wikimedia foundation in Russia, says to RuNet Explorer:

“We learned about the charas case not from Roskomnadzor, but from journalists who had read their letters with the ultimatum. The official warning from them came later.”

Roskomnadzor did not answer the inquiry of RuNet Explorer on this matter.

Many Internet companies are struggling to reach Chinese users. China is a massive market with over 700 million Internet users. Instagram and Google, for instance, are blocked in China.

Google once entered the Chinese market in 2004 by opening an office in Hong Kong but had to face a moral dilemma. China censors the search results. According to Freedom on the Net report, China’s censorship apparatus blacklists keywords. Their list is changing all the time. For instance, In 2014, censorship intensified because of the 25th anniversary of the crackdown on student-led protests, and the government decided to encompass phrases like “return to Tiananmen”, “89”,”8 squared”, and “Victoria Park”. Even the names of some activists are often censored.

Moreover, Google faced constant attacks on the Gmail accounts of dissidents critical of the Chinese government. As the result, the image of Google was spoiled. In 2010, Google’s founders, as the author of the book about Google In the Plex Steven Levy puts it, “agreed on the most significant and embarrassing retreat in the company’s history.”

Russians are free to use anonymizers, the software that allows one to access banned websites and hide one’s identity. The Chinese approach is more sophisticated. The Chinese government has recently started to identify people who use virtual private network (VPN). Andrei Soldatov, the co-author of Red Web, the book on the Internet regulation in Russia  shares the information about a new way to track VPN users in China with RuNet Explorer:

“If someone uses VPN, especially on a smartphone, in China, the device is getting blocked. To unlock it again, people have to go to a local police station. This system works because the Internet service providers could identify the traffic from Tor, however, Tor is trying to build a solution to hide such traces.”

Generally, the technology-savvy users upload VPN and Google anything they want in China. Olga Amangeldyeva, a member of staff at the Chinese Alibaba Group at its International Business Department in Moscow, says to RuNet Explorer: “There are lots of services – free and paid. I used a paid one for about $3 per month, the speed was high and the connection was stable. I checked my Facebook and Gmail easily.”

“You can even order a mobile data plan with pre-installed VPN. China Unicom provides the best 3G coverage, however, it is rather expensive,” senior technical account manager at IT-company Acronis Alexey Yakushin tells RuNet Explorer. According to the company’s website, prices start from US$39 per week.

The mobile operators are free to provide VPN service, according to Yakushin. Alexandra Kulikova, global stakeholder engagement manager for Eastern Europe and Central Asia at ICANN, the organisation managing internet domains worldwide, who has also visited China, has an explanation for this:

“I think the system operated according to unwritten rules. The Internet community does this to protest against the state, and the government does not try to ban their tricks. Everyone is happy.”

VPN as well as filtered traffic has a major downside. Kulikova noticed that the Internet speed was slower in China than in Russia. However, there is another way around the firewall. The spokesperson for the Coordination Center for domains, RU/.РФ and an expert of the RAECS Committee of Registrars and Hosting Providers Michail Anisimov carelessly used his Russian SIM-card in China and accessed everything he wanted – Gmail, Facebook and corporate mailbox – without VPN.

Another Chinese ruling, which is uncommon in Russia, is the approach to mobile applications. The Russain regular has not made a solution to limit access to the mobile applications in Russia. While China has been implementing these restrictions multiple times, for instance, messengers LINE and KakaoTalk are unavailable in this country.

COMMUNIST FRIENDSHIP

Russia and China are exchanging their experiences in the Internet regulation.

In April, the Chinese and Russian officials held the first international forum dedicated to the Internet regulation in Moscow.

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The architect of China’s “Great Firewall” giving a talk in Moscow. Credit: RBC correspondent Alyona Sukharevskaya for RuNet Explorer

Moreover, the news about attempts to build a solution to make the Internet segment in Russia independent from the rest of the world arrives regularly. In February 2016, Vedomosti, a business daily, wrote that the Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications had drafted a law related to Internet connectivity in Russia. One of the clauses suggested creating a list of IP-addresses and domain names registered in Russia. According to Alexey Platonov, the director of Technical Center Internet, the draft law has ‘hints on the Chinese system: there are lines that make it possible to block traffic at the border if it is necessary or filter traffic if such a task will be delivered.’

Later, in May 2016, the Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications published tate program ‘Information Society’, and according to its plans, 99 percent of the Internet traffic in Russia will circulate within the country compared with 70 percent in 2014. This governmental body also plans to duplicate 99 percent of critical Internet infrastructure.

“A YEAR OR TWO TO DISCONNECT THE INTERNET”

However, the Russian Internet experts do not think Russians will face a firewall in the coming months.

“If the government wants to implement the Chinese model of the Internet regulation, they have to do something about connectivity. Chinese Internet was initially designed as a closed system with just a few channels connected to the global traffic exchange. Russian internet is well-connected with the rest of the world,” Leonid Volkov, the co-founder of an NGO Society for Defending the Internet (OZI), says to RuNet Explorer.

Volkov explains that in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed, Russian engineers built rather a “liberal system”. The Internet traffic from abroad to Russia goes via multiple routes owned by different Internet service providers. Soldatov adds that similar national firewalls would cost lots of money while the Russian budget is currently tight.

They started from gathering data about the current state of the Internet in Russia. “The connectivity is rather stable in Russia. But Iran is a good example of the country where they gradually limited the freedom of the Internet. It takes at least a year or two to disconnect the Internet in a country. The Russian government actually wants to disconnect Russia from the global Internet. They are trying to pretend they want to save Russian Internet from the hostile Western countries eager to separate Russia from the rest of the online world,” Leonid Volkov believes.

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Leoniv Volkov. Credit: Volkov’s Facebook account

Now Russia, according to OZI, is well connected with the rest of the world. The index has been fluctuating around 2,000 points since January 2016. “We have data about lots of countries. It never happens overnight. Iran is a great example of a country where they eliminated the connectivity within a couple of years. In a year or two, we will know what will happen in Russia,” the activist concludes.

Soldatov does not believe Russia will build a new firewall because it does not have enough resources, mostly, financial. He has another potential scenario in mind:

“I talked to some smart IT guys a couple of weeks ago and they told me the only way for Russia to filter traffic is to introduce ‘white lists’ of websites. It would mean that all domain addresses that were not approved in advance would be banned. There are crowds of idiots from pro-governmental movements who would do this selection. It could be temporary. When there is an X hour, some kind of a protest, you turn off all the websites except for the approved ones. But it could become a permanent solution as well.”

 

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